I’ve never had writer’s block, not the way some people get it. But there have been long periods of time in my life when I haven’t written. The most recent one I can remember was more than twenty years ago now, when I was embroiled in a bad relationship. There’s a certain level of self-honesty required to write fiction, and when I was telling myself I didn’t have any good reasons to flee for the hills, I couldn’t get much of anything down at all.
And then there’s depression.
Depression seems to be the companion of an awful lot of writers, although that’s by no means universal. I know a bunch of perfectly happy, cheerful, breezy folks who churn stories out by the bucketful. That said, you can’t swing a cat without hitting a depressed writer.
Writing while depressed is hard. Sometimes it’s actually impossible.
There’s this romantic idea that for an artist depression implies some sort of emotional depth, some connection with the more profound experiences of being human. That is utter bullshit. Depression is not deep or profound: it’s a massive pain in the ass. It erases joy, anticipation, any sense of accomplishment. It erases whatever meager objectivity you might have about your own work. Unlike a lot of other ailments, it actually attacks your ability to ask for help.
There’s a popular phrase I hear in the support community: depression lies. What’s hard to hear in that, when it’s taken hold, is that it’s only partly true. I think it’s more accurate to say depression exaggerates. I am one of many worthwhile people in this world becomes I am worthless and would not be missed. I’m a slow writer becomes I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m wasting my time. With depression, the types of careless words that might otherwise be annoying become entirely debilitating.
In short: Depression is the world’s most effective gaslighter.
One of the things that I’ve always found a little disconcerting about internet culture is how common it is for people to discuss, in very personal terms, their experiences with mental illness. In general, I think that’s excellent: it’s a common ailment, and for too many centuries it’s been shameful and hidden.
But it’s odd to think of trying to write about my own experiences, to turn myself inside out and expose how it feels to be that vulnerable, that alienated from the world. I tend to pour it into my fiction. I don’t even always know when I’m doing it. Sometimes I only realize it when I deliberately try to write someone who’s not depressed (like Jessica), and then all of a sudden I see the shadows in all my other characters, in my stories, in the endings.
I’ve been revising my standalone book for the last several weeks. It’s haunted, I think. Bad things happened when I first wrote it. It might have made more sense to abandon it, but I fell in love, as one does. I go through the motions of revising–moving scenes around, sniping excess adverbs, rewriting chunks that don’t flow–but I have no sense of whether or not it works.
I was on antidepressants for a while, a long time ago. I’m not sure whether it was depression or anxiety that was the breaking point. I do remember simple things like grocery shopping became Herculean tasks, that heading down the pasta aisle seemed insurmountably difficult. I couldn’t take SSRIs, as it turned out; I got every single non-dangerous side effect on the list, and they didn’t help a bit. I ended up on Wellbutrin, now popularly prescribed for smoking cessation, but after a couple of years I became allergic to it. I’ve been unwilling to medicate since.
And I’m lucky, because for me it’s a reasonable tradeoff. Not everyone is so lucky. I’m not so seriously depressed that I’d have to choose the side effects. I can function, most of the time. Sometimes it goes away of its own accord, and I have days where I feel entirely ordinary.
Not that I’d know what ordinary feels like. Who does?
Here’s another thing they don’t tell you about depression: it’s not always just a chemical imbalance. Sometimes life whacks you with too much. Depression is an entirely normal reaction to that. But that doesn’t make it something to tough out on your own, any more than you’d tough out a compound fracture if you fell off a roof. The why of depression can help some of us; sometimes figuring out the triggers can help us keep it from attacking again, or at least from attacking so badly. But having a why behind it doesn’t mean it can be ignored.
Along with all the other whys in my life, part of my problem is that one of my POV characters in this book is not entirely mentally healthy. (Well, in a way, neither of them are; but one in particular has some distinct symptoms.) I am wildly protective of her, and I work hard to be meticulous in representing her; but she’s broken, and as I write her, so am I. Now is perhaps not the best time in my life to be writing someone so broken.
But they’re all broken, aren’t they? Just like the rest of us.
I realized today that what I like to write about are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The Galileo stuff is all about people living their lives while the civilization they’ve always known is dissolving around them. The standalone book is about the shattering of certainties. All my books are populated with folks who don’t realize they’re in the soup until they’ve been in it for a while, and they have to figure out how to survive–or, if they’re not going to survive, how to make their lives count.
I guess that’s what we all do.